Spectacle: Elvis Costello With...

Season 1 Episode 3

Bill Clinton

Aired Wednesday 9:00 PM Dec 17, 2008 on Sundance Channel
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Episode Summary

Former President Bill Clinton joins Elvis for his interview/performance show. The 42nd President comments on musicians who influenced his life and, according to the Sundance web site, helped shape him "as a man, a politician and a President". Clinton also talks about his early aspirations as a saxophonist, the importance of music in education, and the similar skill sets which distinguish both great musicians and great politicians. In addition, Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny join Elvis and his band for special, live musical performances.moreless

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  • Bill Clinton. Need I say more?

    President Bill (Bubba) Clinton is funny and relaxed, whether describing anecdotes from his childhood or discussing the presidency. Music was Clinton's first love, and his knowledge is as extensive as you could wish. Each week a different ensemble of musicians accompanies Costello in performing the opening number, which is tailored to the guest, and this week it's guitars and country music in honor of Clinton's Arkansas roots. Clinton reminisces about the Vienna Waltz night Chelsea and her friends once enjoyed in the White House, among other stories you likely never heard before. As usual, the performances are fine, and it's interesting to meet some new faces in the promo spots.moreless
Pete Thomas

Pete Thomas

Himself - Drums

Recurring Role

Davey Faragher

Davey Faragher

Himself - Bass/Vocals

Recurring Role

Trivia, Notes, Quotes and Allusions


  • TRIVIA (1)

    • Song List

      Mystery Train (Elvis Presley-Written by Junior Parker/Sam Phillips)
      Performed by Elvis Costello (Guitar/Vocal) and band
      (James Burton, Davey Faragher, Pete Thomas)

      Baby Let's Play House (Elvis Presley-Written by Arthur Gunter)
      Performed by Elvis Costello (Guitar/Vocal) and band
      (James Burton, Davey Faragher, Pete Thomas)

      Is This America? (Katrina 2005)
      Performed by Pat Metheny (Guitar) and Charlie Haden (Upright Bass)

  • QUOTES (15)

    • Elvis: So, I have to ask you : who do you think is the real king - is it you, him or me?
      Clinton: I'd have to say you because you're the only one that can have any influence on the rest of things … (laughter) But he was something special, you know. He, uh …
      Elvis: Elvis was something special to you.
      Clinton: Something special. I remember, Ronnie Hawkins once said to me, "There's no difference between me and Elvis Presley except looks and talent.

    • Elvis: So were you … were you a little bit put out, sir, when you saw the king hanging out with that, uh, old square, President Nixon? Was it, you know …
      Clinton: No, it wasn't about politics for me and Elvis, I mean, uh …
      Elvis: No, but I mean, his musical tastes … were not yours, were they, President Nixon's?
      Clinton: No, but … but I … you know, I think … he should've played more piano, President Nixon.
      Elvis: He played the piano very well. He played the piano on television …
      Clinton: Yeah, he did … He, um, you know, we're here to talk about music, but Nixon's always intrigued me. He, uh, he was so smart and he had so much talent, but, I think he somehow never really trusted other people. I think he was trusted in the mass of people and the mass of humanity and the sweep of history. But in the end, you know, the work you do in politics is measured by whether it helps individual people's lives - and I think that, in that sense, it's a lot like music - a lot more like jazz music than classical, though.

    • Elvis: Was there a moment of particular revelation, an artist that you heard, that made you realize that what talents you had in music maybe - or a moment of mortification even about music - that made you realize that … the sudden discovery that you were able to do things in another way?
      Clinton: Well, first, I … I loved it. I don't think I was ever happier doing anything - and I was pretty good when I was a teenager. Uh, but I … I remember looking into the mirror one day when I first started to shave, thinking "No matter how hard you work, you'll never be John Coltrane or Stan Getz. You're good and you could be really good, but you probably won't be that great." And, at that time, uh, you couldn't make a living, uh, as a saxophone player - like Kenny G does today - you, you couldn't do CD's and occasional concerts and draw massive crowds. Even if you were really great, you had … you had to do the clubs, you had to stay up all night, sleep half the day - and, uh, if you wanted to have a family and a normal life, you really put it at risk making a decision to be a jazz musician. And I would've done it, I think, if I thought I could've been the greatest there ever was, and I knew I couldn't. And I decided, with no rational basis - nobody in my family had ever been in politics, we had no money, we had no connections - I said, "You know, I'm good at this, because I get people and I like the work and … I'm gonna try to do this."

    • Elvis: Did you feel that when you first spoke in public and were persuasive, that maybe some of the elements of timing, cadence and being able to … command a room even, that they're some of the things that you need as a musician …
      Clinton: Absolutely, but when you play, you play to one person as if you were playing to a million, or if you're playing to a million, you play as if you were playing to one. That's what a lot of, uh … In modern times, the microphone … all the amplification - now all this stuff … the technology's only made it more true, all this stuff on YouTube and everything. It's, uh … it destroyed the old-fashioned speaking style which still dominated politics when I was a boy, you know, where … uh, keep in mind, William Jennings Bryan used to speak for four hours, and sometimes used a megaphone, sometimes not even that, there were no microphones, so you had (voice rises) to develop … this aggravated …
      Elvis: Cadence.
      Clinton: … style, you know? It was somehow artificial. Uh, President Kennedy was a transitional figure. He was good on television and good in the debates, but if you listen to his inaugural address, it's still this sort of … rhythmic in an almost old-fashioned way …
      Elvis: That's true.
      Clinton: … with carefully chiseled phrases. Uh, Ronald Reagan grew up in the movies, in a different age and time, and just talked to people - and I always found that was more comfortable. I always … uh, once in a while, I'll get into some sort of a rhetorical riff, but usually, you talk - and again I'll say it's more like jazz than classical music. There's a … you know, the notes are the same, those are the words, and you may … I like to speak from an outline or just from memory, because you have to ad-lib a little too - you have to know where you are … with the audience, and in a moment in time.

    • Clinton (about New Orleans): I went down there, um, when I was 15, and my mother … uh, and my brother then was five, so my mother and my stepfather sort of traded off and this night my stepfather stayed home with my brother so my mother could take me to Al Hirt's club. And when I got there, they said "You're not old enough to get it."; and I said, "Look, I don't want anything to drink, I just want to hear him play … and it's the only reason I came down here." So, he said, "Well, he's around the corner. If he'll let you in, you can come." And I went around the corner and Al Hirt was sitting, reading a newspaper in the first Bentley I ever laid my eyes on. Oh, my God, it was a beautiful car. It was … and it was as big as our house, you know? (laughter) And so I knocked on the window and he rolled it down, there was this impertinent kid, and I said "I came all the here to hear you play. They won't let me in, I'm not 18. Please, let me go in." So, he was so nice. He got out, he took mother and me in, put us in the table right in front of the stage and got me a coke …

    • Clinton: … Hilary and I always stayed and danced a couple of times there, and then we had several dances at the White House. We like to dance a lot.
      Elvis : There are probably some world leaders who wouldn't have cut too much of a good rug, I think, you know, trying to join in with you … doing the mashed potato …
      Clinton: Well, I think some of 'em were always worried about their image, but since mine was always under assault, I figured I might as well have a good time.

    • Elvis: There's a serious question I'd like to ask you about music and high office, because the President obviously faces life and death decisions. You have to make these decisions which would trouble any man, and the President is a man … and …
      Clinton: For the time being.
      Elvis: Well … (laughter) You have to, in yourself, within the office, retain clarity and sanity and, in years gone by, people always spoke of finding spiritual solace in works of philosophy and poetry and in prayer … and, not just exclusively because you play an instrument yourself, but I wondered if there were any occasions where you felt, after one of these most difficult decisions … there was any place for music in preserving spiritual solace?
      Clinton: Yes … and also a place in, um … staying in the right place while you were making decisions. When I was President, I had a … a private office in the White House, as all President's do - on the second floor where you live. And I had a great little Bang and Olufsen speaker system there and a huge array of music that I liked. I had jazz, rock & roll, blues, classical, religious music; and … most nights after dinner I'd go in there and work for 2 or 3 hours and I'd play the music - and it always helped to stay in the right frame of mind. And then, up on the third floor of the White House, Hilary actually had one of the little rooms there redecorated as a music room for me and I had my music there, so I could go … and play. And I would often, uh, do that, uh, before … or during some particularly tense time - and it always helped.

    • Clinton: It's totally disorientating. You know, the biggest rush about being President is they play "Hail To The Chief" every time you walk into the room. Once they do that for eight years … Now, literally for weeks afterwards, I didn't know where I was 'cause nobody played a song anymore. (laughter) But, uh … you think I'm kidding, but it is, it's pretty disorientating.
      Elvis (more laughter): No, I don't think you're kidding.
      Clinton: That's how you know you're not President anymore, when there's stone cold silence when you walk in the room.

    • Clinton: So I think … the one thing that being heavily involved … invested in music does for you … is it makes you more sensitive to things that other people overlook - 'cause you cannot be a really good musician unless you see what's on the page besides the notes. You have to feel how the notes have to be played, how the spacing has to occur, when you should turn up the volume and take it down, how you can play it differently than anyone else ever played it. If you do, will you keep the fundamental character of the song? What's your relationship with the composer when you're playing the song? I mean, it, it, it … you see things in a different way, I think, if you've ever taken music seriously - even if you're not a great musician, if you've just taken it seriously, you see things in a different way and I think it would help every White House to do that because, otherwise, if you're not careful, you will become riveted and almost frozen in stone and imprisoned by the daily emergencies or the daily stories.

    • Clinton: I'm not sure I could've become President if I hadn't been exposed to music, played in my school band, learned how to compete, learned how to handle defeat - and learned how to channel my, uh, considerable emotional energy into, you know, some constructive way, learned the discipline of music as well as the creativity of it. I think it made a … had a huge impact on the whole rest of my life.

    • Clinton: The sixties were about The Beatles and The Rolling Stones to me. "In My Life" had a big impact on me … I think it's because I'm a Southerner - and, uh, memory has always, you know, it's caused us a lot of trouble, us Southerners, our memories. But, uh, I loved "In My Life".

    • Clinton: But after I got into Law School and got into politics, my relationship with music became more tenuous until my daughter told me I was a dummy when it came to, uh, rap and hip-hop and I had to listen before I criticized it … because there were a lot of really smart people doin' it. And, uh, several years ago for my birthday, she gave me six albums - she started all the way back with N.W.A. in the '80's and came all the way up. She said, "Listen to all this, and I'm going to give you a test to see if you'll …" (laughter)
      Elvis: And did you pass, sir, did you pass?
      Clinton: I'm not sure I passed, but I got it. I got, I got what they were doing - and I got how smart a lot of those people are, why it's a unique art form. I'd still rather listen to Ray Charles, but I get it.
      Elvis: Well, I'm with you there. (laughter) But … it's the aspiration within the song or the piece of music, it doesn't necessarily follow that all music that is gentle or beautiful contains all the most admiral thoughts, some of the thoughts within superficially beautiful music are superficial - and, and as you just said, uh, music that aggressive and even the breaking of guitars - and I wouldn't be here now if I hadn't done a lot of thrashing and yelling, uh, with an electric guitar.

    • Clinton: If you look at this, we should be trying to make sure that all these countries we're trying to help, part of what we try to do lifts up their music as a part of their character and it fulfills the spirit. I don't think that … Uh, Mandela would tell you that a great deal of the endurance of the South Africans through all the long years of apartheid, uh, was rooted in their unbelievable songs - which have, in some ways, the most haunting, breathtaking quality as people sing them, you know? And how do these people find a way to be happy in the face of all their difficulties? You see it on every continent.

    • Elvis: This will bring us closer … It's not an idealistic idea. Um, it's not a utopian idea that we can speak to one another - but there's a lot of things standing between us, the fear, just the difference of a language or the difference of a culture from which the music springs.
      Clinton: If you listen to these songs, if you listen to the … African songs, the Latin-American songs, songs from any continent … they're all about, uh, love and loss, and they, in some way, every single one of them that amounts to anything, affirms our common humanity.
      Elvis: Um … and they say the same things as you'll find in Carter Family songs or Hank Williams songs, they … common experiences …

    • Clinton: I mean, why do people come to this Global Initiative and give money they otherwise could spend on another car? Because, they realize that in the end, we find meaning in our lives in no small measure in relationship to other people. That's why music works. Otherwise, if we were all walled off, music would have no appeal to anybody. I mean, why can, uh … and yet, you don't even have to speak the language. I listen to a lot of music now where I don't have a clue what they're saying, but I get it.
      Elvis: But … the sound of the voice affects you.
      Clinton: You get it. You get it, and … I just … the most important thing you've said for me today as someone who worries about the impact of what I do on other people is that we made a big mistake letting music go downhill in our exposing our children to it, teaching them to play it, teaching them to enjoy it. Not everybody has to be the star. This is not, primarily, a spectator sport, music. It should be something that everybody's involved in.
      Elvis: And somebody has to play the tuba in the background … an orchestra cannot exist without it …
      Clinton: You bet, somebody has to play the tuba. I always admired, you know, I was a drum major in high school - and the guys that, uh, could carry the tuba through a long parade and never, never chip a tooth (laughter) … never miss a note, I always admired those guys.

  • NOTES (2)